RALEIGH, N.C. — A young-leaning, inexperienced and untested playoff team becomes an experienced group the minute it passes the test.
Which is what the Rangers had become in the interim between eliminating the Penguins in overtime of Game 7 at the Garden on Sunday and Game 1 of the conference semis against the ‘Canes here on Wednesday.
In this season of college commencements, the Blueshirts had earned their degree in postseason adversity.
“I think it’s huge. It definitely gives us a bit of confidence,” Adam Fox said before the opener. “We know we have the ability to beat good teams. And I think the way we did it, too, gives us confidence to know we’re never out of the game, even though we don’t want to put ourselves in those positions where we have to dig out of holes.”
The Rangers not only overcame a 3-1 series deficit to vanquish the more experienced Penguins, but they overcame two-goal, second-period leads in both Games 5 and 6 and a late third period one-goal lead in Game 7. They also had erased a three-goal deficit in Game 3 before losing that one.
They had also been exposed to the noise and emotion of a road playoff crowd. The ceaseless taunts that cascaded down on Igor Shesterkin in Pittsburgh seemed to unnerve the netminder in Games 3 and 4. The Rangers unraveled in concert.
But by Game 6, Shesterkin was able to ignore them, using advice from goaltending coach Benoit Allaire — “He told me to do one thing” — that he would not share. His confidence transferred to his teammates.
The arena here was expected to be louder than the one in Pittsburgh. But the Rangers this time knew what to anticipate and that they could win under these adverse conditions because they had just done it five nights earlier.
“Every building is going to be loud and crazy,” said head coach Gerard Gallant. “I mean Shesty got a feel of that in his first playoff game and I think our team got a feel of it.
“You’ve just got to ignore that and play the game. We talk about that all the time. You’ve just got to be ready for it.”
Fox became the first player in NHL history to make his official playoff debut as the reigning Norris Trophy winner. One round into it and the Harvard product had become the fourth defensemen in NHL history to record a point in every game of a seven-game series while going 3-7-10 in 28:24 of ice time per.
“I think everyone upped their intensity right from the start,” Fox said. “Hopefully we’ve adjusted to being on the road, where that’s a little different atmosphere in the playoffs. I think we kind of understand how we have to play in different situations. I think we’ve done a good job as a team adjusting to the playoffs from the regular season with understanding how important every shift is.
“It’s definitely different than anything I’ve played before. Every game is so intense, every shift, you can’t have any lapses. Every mistake is amplified.”
The Rangers did have the advantage of opening at home in Round One. This, of course, is a different story. But the Blueshirts, even with their inexperience, were generally favored to beat the Penguins, perhaps only because of home-ice advantage that did manifest itself in Game 7.
But this round? Carolina is an overwhelming favorite in the stepchild of the second round, with the other three matchups (Lightning-Panthers; Avalanche-Blues; Oilers-Flames) flush with more tantalizing and romantic storylines.
The Rangers, who will need to play their four best and most disciplined games of the season in order to have a shot at pulling this off, will attempt to use their underdog status to their advantage. They’ll use anything they can get, and why not?
“I think definitely I think we can use that,” Fox said. “I think certainly people weren’t expecting us to maybe get this far or have a shot against this team but we’re a confident group. When the pressure is not on you to win I guess you can play a little more loose — I don’t know if, ‘loose,’ is the right word — but we trust ourselves.
“The belief in our locker room has been high all year. It’s not for us to care what outside people think of our chances but we know what we’re capable of and are just going to try and go out there and show it.”